As your reporter headed out this morning to mail some letters, the guard and engineer from the construction site next door were standing in front of his office quarreling about who got to ride the company bicycle to the post office. After all, the post office is all of 100 feet (30 meters) away.
"Give your letters to me," your reporter told them, and got in turn a set of frosty looks that suggested there was nothing that both of them would like better than to see him immediately drown himself in the nearest mud puddle. Who knows what vile foreign machination this was? Wouldn't this endanger the entire future of the Japanese construction industry? But then, it was your reporter's bicycle parking place they were using and they had to say something. A shrewd look crossed the guard's face; the perfect answer had come to him:
"You don't have a bicycle."
In Japan, the bicycle is a second pair of legs. With the exception of Holland, no advanced industrialized country in the world depends on bicycles more than Japan. You don't have to exhort the Japanese to ride bicycles and get some exercise; the whole nation is out there pumping away. The average Japanese would no more think of walking down to the corner store than the average American would. The difference is, that the American would jump in his car, pollute the world, and make the trade deficit even worse, while the Japanese would peddle down there. It's no wonder that the average Japanese is slimmer than the average American.
The Japanese are not getting on their bikes because they want to save the environment, or have a subtle Asian love of nature: Japan, especially Tokyo is so gridlocked, that nothing else makes sense, except maybe for a motorbike. Every Japanese home usually has a half dozen bicycles stranded in front of it: one for every member of the family, plus one that uncle Taro forgot and one more that somehow just turned up one day. Many Japanese sidewalks have more bicycle riders on them than pedestrians. Only foreigners are foolish enough to ride in the streets.
Japanese bicycles come in three sizes: small, pretty small and really small. The size of a standard Japanese bike is about 2/3 or less the size of a European bicycle, with infinite variations. Younger Japanese are all knees and elbows on a standard Japanese size bike. An entire generation has outgrown them, but people grab the nearest bike handy out of sheer habit. At least in theory, there's a bike to fit everyone and one often sees mother and father, each on their own bicycle, followed down the street by two or three children, also on their own bikes, oblivious to the world and chattering back and forth, like they were out for a drive in the family car.
Probably the first memory many Japanese have is of riding a bicycle. Young housewives have kiddy seats for their children fitted to their bicycles, one below the handlebars and one in back. Every morning streams of pretty young mothers arrive on bicycles at nursery schools with their children in their kiddy seats. It's one of the loveliest sights in Japan.
A bicycle isn't thought of as a means of transportation, but more as a substitute for walking. Grumpy old grandpas and grandmas ride along no faster than walking pace, driving everyone crazy by incessantly ringing their bell. Your reporter's neighbors, head-banging rock and rollers, favor a suitably bizarre type of bike with wheels less than a foot (30 cm) in diameter and teeter off to gigs trying their best to pedal in their elevator platform shoes. The picture gets perfect when their pet Chihuahua manages to get out of the house and chase them yapping down the street.
Bikes are really meant only to get you to the station and no further. And, they're cheap. As commercial information put out by the Osaka Chamber of Commerce blandly puts it, ". . . bikes for regular use must be cheap because they get stolen and wrecked often."
Rules of the road are simple. Whoever can do the most damage has the right of way. Teenagers go barreling through a crowds at top speed in the blithe expectation that everyone will dive out of their way. They'd better, or get run over. Several hundred people die or are seriously injured every year in accidents involving pedestrians and bicycles. At least older people have the sense to use their bell now and then, no matter how irritating it can be. Young people don't — it's too "kakkou yokunai" — uncool.
Bicycles are getting very close to being part of the problem instead of part of the solution: parking a bike, particularly near a station. is becoming a major irritation. With so many bikes — the Japanese buy about 10 million bikes a year, according to the Japan Bicycle Association — station bicycle parking lots are packed to capacity. In some bedroom communities, although space for as many as 20,000 bikes is provided in the station bike parking lot — there are no spaces for cars, by the way — bikes are bursting out at the seams and overflow down sidewalks and streets in every direction.
Pedestrians rate zero respect. Even in front of the staid Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi near Ikebukuro Station, one of the busiest stations in Tokyo, commuters dump so many bikes in front of the doors that the entrance is reduced to a toothpaste squeeze until head-shaking bank officers come out of the bank to try to clear a passageway. Occasionally at the bike parking lot for Ikebukuro Station, the attendants give in to frustration and start throwing bikes into stacks five and six deep as an unending river of commuters pour in, sometimes just stepping off their bicycles and dropping them anywhere, with a firm trust that God will clear up their mess.
In front of Seibu Department Store in Ikebukuro, hundreds of bicycles are chained to the sidewalk railings with screaming yellow police stickers pasted to their handlebars "This is an abandoned bike! Removed immediate or it will be disposed of!" but bike riders seem pretty unimpressed. Some of them have two or three warning stickers, plus red warning stickers warning of imminent doom, with warning dates running back to August. Riding your bike to the station and forgetting it, particularly when drunk, is a standard comedy of Japanese life.
"I don't know what we're supposed to do with all these abandoned bikes. There are too many of them to auction off, and besides, nobody wants them. It costs too much money to send them to foreign countries, and now the only thing left to do is to crush them for scrap steel," says the information officer at Tozuka Police Station as he gets on his white police bicycle and pedals off.
Bicycles are Japan's most conspicuous success in alternative energy use. Policemen, gas meter readers, milk delivery ladies and just about every single figure from the Prime Minister on down bike it. But the problem is the distances they go: a bicycle is used to go to the station or maybe the store, but no further. You bike instead of walking, and the distances are no more than people normally walk. Serious travel is always by train, no matter how sardine-packed, expensive or uncomfortable. This is a Japan mindset. Yet in Tokyo, many of the commutes are within easy bicycling or walking distance and biking or walking is much faster than by car, train or bus. All transportation is arranged to feed the trains, so it seems only natural that bicycles do so too. All bus routes run from one station to the other, at least in Tokyo, and cabbies, without question the most thoroughly lost people in all of Tokyo, are guided from station to station.
Without getting overly philosophical over what are, after all, two-wheel clunkers, maybe this points also to a real Japanese problem: too much centralization in thinking. In countries such as Holland, it's true that the bicycle supplies a flexibility that Holland's often under-average public transport needs; Japan's is infinitely better. But it also speaks of greater adaptability and a more comprehensive approach to a similar problem.
Tokyo is now so clogged and gridlocked that there is very serious talk about moving the capital, just to get away from all the self-inflicted crowding. This is the elephantine type of solution to problems the Japanese adore: completely ineffectual, too big for anyone to take realistically and an excuse for endless talk. And ironically, if they just rode those very bikes which are crowding the stations and streets a bit further, they might find that they were already well on the way to solving the problem.
Editor's note: Bill Stonehill hails from Chicago, Illinois. Trained as an engineer and China specialist, he has now been living in Tokyo for well over 20 years. He imports Swiss watches, is expert at taking them apart, and if anyone knows what makes Japan tick too then he does. From 1999 until 2001 he wrote a regular Japan column for the Morrock News Service (sadly discontinued), which was enjoyed by Web-surfers around the world. We greatly appreciate the author's allowing us to republish some of his very best articles here in Japan Perspectives.